Apology PR: What Happened To The ‘Good Wife’?

For the record, I thought Rep. Anthony Weiner’s apology was fairly strong. He accepted responsibility, admitted that he lied, vowed to change, and issued apologies to practically everyone in the universe, even the Democrats’ Darth Vader, Andrew Breitbart. (Who, in a surreal move, nearly hijacked Weiner’s air time…but that’s another post.) Weiner then subjected himself to endless cringe-inducing questions from the press rabble.

But there was one thing missing from Weiner’s exercise in apology PR, and that was his wife, Huma Abedin. Ms. Abedin’s absence, and her low profile throughout “Weinergate,” has been noted by the press.  It’s indicative of an independent spouse’s prerogative, but also possibly of changing attitudes about the role of “the good wife” in crisis management strategy and public perception.

We’re accustomed to the supportive, unwavering spouse who literally stands by her man, — in public,  in the most humiliating circumstances possible. Who can forget Silda Spitzer’s hollow gaze, or Dina McGreevy’s odd smile? The good wife has been an essential element of the reputation playbook. Observers, especially female observers, are meant to think, “If she can forgive him and stay by his side, then surely I can do the same.”

But things are changing. Part of it may be that high-achieving political wives like Maria Shriver and Huma Abedin have more to lose by expressing tacit approval, or at least forbearance, in the face of bad behavior. They have their own careers, goals, and identities that aren’t inextricably bound to their marital status.

But I also think that public opinion has evolved. The dutiful spouse who must demonstrate unquestionable loyalty to her husband is no longer a part of the crisis management handbook or the apology formula. A wife isn’t merely an accoutrement in the drama. Nor is she a lighting rod or surrogate for the female demographic.

Here’s one reason why I think public perception has changed. I’ll bet that if Ms. Abedin had appeared at her husband’s presser, we’d have thought, “Why does he have to drag her into this mess?” And rightly so. I’m not sure if the good wife is dead, but she’s definitely getting more independent, and more interesting.

And that’s a good thing.

Crisis PR Tips From "Weinergate"

Last night, Jon Stewart mocked his own ambivalence about going below the belt on close friend Rep. Anthony Weiner in a bit that epitomized the appeal of the scandal known as  “Weinergate.” A Tom Brokaw “angel” appeared over one shoulder urging journalistic restraint, while a Don Rickles “devil” on the other side repeated, “But it’s about Weiner’s wiener!”

The story has it all – sex, partisan politics, Twitter… and endless opportunities for wordplay.
As Rep. Weiner himself admits, the jokes just write themselves as the story keeps, um, growing. But apart from pun-ditry, the frenzy over the crude photo that appeared oh-so-briefly on his Twitter feed offers lessons for handling sensitive matters. Because in this case, it’s Weiner’s own approach to media that helped turn a weekend story into a full-blown crisis.

Don’t flip-flop. No pun intended. Weiner, who is reportedly his own press advisor, started by laughing off the incident. When it escalated, he launched an ill-advised media talkathon. Then, he refused to answer the questions his own responses raised. A better strategy would have been a single press statement or interview that explained the situation to the best of his abilility.

Be brief. The normally press-savvy Weiner thought he could fall back on the “talking defense” that has made him a popular cable guest. But this is personal, and he’s already on the defensive. Too much accessibility without sticking to a prepared script nearly always makes it worse.

Stay calm. Blowing his stack and calling a CNN reporter a “jackass” only served to guarantee at least 12 more hours of the news cycle, while making him look stressed. Not a smart move.

Get the bad news out. This one’s the biggie. Weiner’s response that he couldn’t say “with certitude” that the tight-whiteys weren’t his set off a fresh barrage of speculation, with good reason. Bottom line, there are bound to be some very personal photos of this Congressional member floating around. If that’s the case, he should say so. It’s embarrassing, but not illegal. And if there’s more, he should decide what should be shared and get it all out in one sitting.

Think it through. By claiming he’d been hacked, but declining to have the FBI investigate, Weiner gave rise to speculation that he has something to hide. Evidence suggests his Twitter could have been hacked, but the use of that word by a U.S. representative triggers questions that he should have anticipated. But, sadly, he seems to be trying to improvise his way out of the mess.

The most ironic PR learning here is that the young woman in question, a 21-year-old Seattle college student, has handled herself masterfully. She put out a statement firmly denying any inappropriate contact with Weiner, explained the tongue-in-cheek “boyfriend” references on her Twitter feed, and doggedly stuck to her story, refusing all media interviews.

Of course she has the benefit of not being a married U.S. Representative from New York with a liberal bent, Clinton ties, and a big mouth. But I think a PR star is born. It’s too late for Weiner to follow her example, but he can still heed the advice of former roomie Stewart, who ended his segment by yelling, “Just tell the truth!”